At new WAM exhibit, art and environmentalism collide

The Weisman Art Museum brings a free exhibit that showcases the present, past and future of the Great Lakes.

Norah Kleven

On Friday, an exhibit which the Weisman Art Museum first coordinated two years ago will finally make its debut in Minnesota. 

“Alexis Rockman: The Great Lakes Cycle” is a traveling exhibit showcasing the history of North America’s Great Lakes system, starting with the Pleistocene Era (2.6 million years ago).  

New-York based artist Alexis Rockman’s murals offer a historically accurate view of the past of the Great Lakes as well as a cautionary, apocalyptic view of the future of the lakes — if humans don’t take action now. The detailed and crisp paintings are the result of more than four years of meticulous research. 

The project was commissioned by the Grand Rapids Art Museum (GRAM), where it was displayed in spring 2018. 

Dana Friis-Hansen, director and CEO of GRAM, selected Rockman to carry out the project due to his 30-year history of illustrating environmental issues through artwork, which often include issues surrounding water. 

“Rockman’s series celebrates the majesty and global importance of the lakes while identifying factors … that threaten the system,” Friis-Hansen said. 

Among these threats are globalization of trade, pollution and invasive species, according to Diane Mullin, senior curator of the Weisman Art Museum. 

Mullin said the mention of the inland sea system is absent in many discussions of water pollution. 

“The Great Lakes is our region. We were excited about [the exhibit] because of the subject and because it really talks about the importance of that water system,” she said. 

The show consists of five painted murals, six large-scale watercolor paintings and dozens of field paintings, in which Rockman used elements from the Great Lakes region, such as sand and leaves, to illustrate lifeforms of the region. 

The largest of the paintings are where Rockman’s signature style — and his detailed research that  weaves together realistic images from different time periods  —   can best be seen. Underwater creatures of the Ice Age are pictured alongside futuristic, pollution-affected beasts and modern human byproducts, such as heavy machinery. 

Rockman’s research took him across the Midwest and Canada, connecting him with residents of the region and researchers at Northern Michigan University, Cleveland Museum of Natural History and Minnesota’s own Bell Museum.  

While Rockman said he leaves interpretation to each individual who visits the exhibit, the four-year saga of research and creation resonated with him. 

“[I learned] how precious and fragile the lakes are and how urgent it is to consider them as something worth protecting and cherishing,” he said. 

In addition to the Rockman’s paintings, the Weisman will also include an interactive feature, offering specimens from the Bell Museum and a section on Native American education as part of the exhibit. 

What: “Alexis Rockman: The Great Lakes Cycle”

When: Oct. 11, 2019 – Jan. 5, 2020

Where: Weisman Art Museum, 333 E. River Parkway, Minneapolis

Cost: Free

Ages: All ages